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PA: Charlie Hebdo — Reasonable Response

÷The violent response to Charlie Hebdo is understandable considering how much Islam reveres the Prophet.÷

A strong version of the “you need to consider the wider context” argument, the above statement is part of an attempt to help non-Muslims understand how truly horrible the offending cartoons must have been for Muslims. Because the Prophet is so revered and because depicting him is so heinous according to some creeds, the damage done to pious Muslims is actually commensurate (or nearly so) with the crimes of revenge. This implies that the violence enacted in revenge is, prima facie, a valid response to blasphemy.

The argument is a faint echo of the “it takes two to tango” formulation most familiar from teachers’ adjudications in the kangaroo court of the classroom. A typical classroom example may involve little Muhammad punching little Charlie in the face in retaliation for Charlie using crayons to draw a crude likeness of Muhammad with stink lines emanating from his rear. The ensuing tears from Charlie may result in the punishment of Muhammad for settling his disputes with fists and the stern objurgation of Charlie not to provoke other students. Even in this example the teacher has arguably reacted in a disproportionate manner, unfairly censuring Charlie for a comparatively minor offence. Still, a punch is possibly still in the same region of wrong as a libelous drawing.

A more appropriate analogue would be if we scaled up the actions of the kids to match the Paris attacks. In our new example Charlie draws Muhammad (without stink lines) and Muhammad’s friends shoot Charlie and his friends with assault weapons, riddling their tiny bodies with fatal wounds. In such a case, the equivalent response to Charlie’s parents would be, “I’m not saying that Charlie deserved to be slaughtered like a dog in a one-sided gun fight, but he also shouldn’t have provoked Muhammad’s friends. You know how they are.” Oddly enough, the “boys will be boys” attitude that mitigates the crime seems to apply most aptly when the boys are replaced with men.

An equivalence between offence and revenge requires a metric to determine it accurately. The degree of offense that was inflicted by satirical depictions of the revered Prophet can be considered as a loss of face (see figure 2). The attackers were able to recover most of their loss by shooting the cartoonists; but both attackers and satirists will eventually converge on the typical profile for a Homo sapiens, i.e. total loss of face as the body, face included, decomposes completely, with only a bare residuum of face enduring in the form of images (photographs, drawings, etc.) of the deceased.

Figure 2 | Loss of face with age. Typical Homo sapiens approach, but do not reach zero.
Figure 2 | Loss of face with age. Typical Homo sapiens approach, but do not reach zero.

A special non-visual note must be made of Muhammad’s profile, which initially followed the standard trajectory, with the Prophet’s putrefaction leading to a facial reduction, but was artificially kept at zero by the prohibition of any post-mortem depiction. Although, at such small values, the curve becomes rough and in some places ill-defined when considering what exactly constitutes a representation.

Figure 3 | Although there is a fear of loss of face and the Prophet’s face has been artificially kept at zero, faces have accumulated steadily for the faith.
Figure 3 | Although there is a fear of loss of face and the Prophet’s face has been artificially kept at zero, faces have accumulated steadily for the faith.

The loss of face endured by believers having their prophet mocked may well be significant, but is probably less than the loss of maxillofacial structure endured by the cartoonists who were shot in the head.